Summer youth program back

07/07/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Chris Camire
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Three weeks ago, UMass Lowell's National Youth and Sports Program was to be canceled for the first time in 15 years.

The program, which buses 200-plus underprivileged city youngsters to the campus every summer to learn about sports, math and science, had fallen victim to federal budget cuts.

At the last minute, the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation stepped up and awarded a $30,000 grant to keep NYSP afloat this summer. It runs July 16 to Aug. 3.

"Without the Parker Foundation there was no way it was going to be sponsored," said Dana Skinner, UMass Lowell's athletic director, who helped bring NYSP to UMass Lowell. "Last summer we survived. This summer we didn't think it was going to happen."

In 2005, the federal government cut the $18 million needed to run NYSP at about 200 sites across the country. UMass Lowell was able to keep the program going in 2006 from leftover money and donations.

The program needed $60,000 this year. There are now only about 15 NYSP programs left in the country, estimates Skinner.

Samnang Hor, 22, of Lowell, has been coming to NYSP for 13 years. The thought of it being stripped away from his summer routine made him ill.

"I was like, there's just no way we cannot have this camp. It's been a part of my life for so long now," said Hor, who just finished his first year as a Tyngsboro High School math teacher.

Hor started out as a camper, became a junior counselor and is now a camp veteran. Having grown up in the former Julian D. Steele housing development, Hor said he is able to identify with the low-income campers.

"The kids are from the same background I'm from, kind of lower income, so I have a lot in common with them," Hor said. "The people are really supportive, and I just fell in love with the program."

At the height of NYSP, UMass Lowell had about 450 campers during six weeks. The program now hosts 240 campers during three weeks.

"Three weeks is only a small portion of the summer," said Westford Academy boys basketball coach Ed Scollan, who directs the program. "When you hear about problems in the city because kids don't have anything to do, it'd be great to get it back to six weeks."

Keeping NYSP alive for another year also gives 37 teenagers summer jobs. Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Greater Lowell and Nashoba Valley receives federal money, which is used to employ 14- to 19-year-olds as counselors.

"It exposes them to the college atmosphere and keeps them away from gangs and teen pregnancy," said Jim Conlon, a Big Brothers-Big Sisters director. "If the program was canceled, we'd have to find somewhere else to place them, and that isn't easy to do."

To bring NYSP back in 2008, camp organizers will continue to lobby Congress, state and city officials and donors. There's no guarantee the money will be there.

"Every year we wake up and look for more money under the tree," said Skinner.